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How Kansas City Became the Most Connected City in America

Photo: Courtesy of Tianyi Ma

A willingness to work with private entrepreneurs and companies gave Kansas City the smart tools to become a city of the future. We spoke to former KC mayor Sly James about the partnerships and strategies that made this possible. 

Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) are providing communities with new tools and ways to address their infrastructure challenges. How have you used your role as mayor to help the city embrace new technology and innovation?

As mayor, I’m able to convene top talent across sectors, and provide the public support that encourages them to collaborate on innovative and sustainable solutions to chronic problems in our city. For example, our Innovative Partnership Program challenges entrepreneurs to develop, test, and demonstrate innovative solutions for the city to improve the quality and efficiency of its services and operations. Through this partnership, the city agrees to test and evaluate those solutions using city infrastructure data.

This is an opportunity for entrepreneurs to expose their products and services to a broader base, potentially attracting new clients. The city benefits by having the chance to try the new technology at no cost. After the test period, the city may decide to purchase a company’s product or services.

Most of the time, the biggest problem with smart cities is not knowing where to start. How did Kansas City become a hub of innovation that eventually earned it the nickname “The Most Connected City in America”?

Along with Kansas City, Kansas, we were fortunate to be selected as Google’s first Google Fiber city in 2011, and this brought several fiber providers to our community to take advantage of the creation of fiber conduit and other developments throughout our city. 

We now have over 8,000 miles of fiber that the city owns as a result of this boom and about 5.5 Million miles of fiber in the metro area. Once a community has a high capacity network on which to connect, the phone starts ringing.

How has the success of smart city initiatives made Kansas City a better place to live, work, and play?

Kansas City has become one of the “smartest” cities in this country because these innovations help us deliver services to our residents more efficiently. Period. We didn’t implement any of these new tools to get attention or brag about tech toys — we’ve pursued these initiatives because they’re helping us make our city better for everyone.

Kansas City is leading the way in smart transportation. How has technology advanced the equitable transportation infrastructure?

We’re fortunate to have a great partner in the Kansas City Area Transit Authority (KCATA) and its CEO, Robbie Makinen. The KCATA team has expanded Bus Rapid Transit services three times over the past 10 years, worked for federal funding in support of a planned bus rapid transit line, and experimented with innovative transit programs like Ride KC Freedom and ride discount programs for veterans. 

By remaining citizen/customer-focused, the KCATA team is a true partner in making our city accessible to all our residents and visitors.

With rapid urbanization and populations booming, how can leaders of the public and private sectors, as well as citizens, do their part to make every American city successfully connected?

Don’t overestimate or overemphasize what new innovations and technologies can accomplish — they are simply tools that allow us to serve our citizen’s better and we need to use them wisely. What it’s really all about is engaging with each other to understand how we can work together more efficiently and equitably.

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